Q&A With the Girl Behind That Big Hair Bow

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Illustration by Ad Age

If you have a tween girl, you're probably familiar with their latest craze: colorful, over-size hair bows. And with the holidays approaching, you likely also know that these two gifts are hard to find: a hair-bow maker and a singing doll wearing the hair accessory.

Well, thank JoJo Siwa.

The 14-year-old YouTube star and her signature JoJo bow—which has beome a symbol for standing up to bullies—rose to fame as a dancer on the Lifetime series "Dance Moms." She's now a top YouTube personality and the face of Nickelodeon, and retailers like Walmart are eager to be partners.

Siwa's YouTube channel has over 5 million subscribers, and more than 9 million people watched epsidoes of her getting ready in the morning and giving a tour of her bedroom. She also has over 6 million followers on Instagram, 10 million on Musical.ly and 316,000 on Twitter.

Nickelodeon made an unprecedented move in March by partnering with Siwa for a multi-platform deal that includes TV appearances and consumer products. It was an unusual move for Nick, the talent of which has typically been homegrown.

But the Viacom-owned network tapped Siwa amid a changing landscape in kids' programming. An increasing number of teens and tweens turn to YouTube as their source of entertainment, and some of the biggest celebrities among the demographic have been born from social media.

Perhaps the biggest opportunity has been in the consumer products space. Nickelodeon has licensed hundreds of products featuring Siwa and her dog BowBow, including a singing doll that's a finalist for toy of the year and a bow maker that's currently sold out at Toys R Us.

"From a retail perspective there's a giant white space for teen and tween products," says Pam Kaufman, CMO and president of consumer products at Nickelodeon. "'High School Musical,' Justin Bieber, One Direction, they all came and went. I love SpongeBob and the Turtles, but there's something about having a real-life person."

Credit: Walmart

Siwa has also been featured with her mom in a Toyota campaign around Nick's "Kids' Choice Awards," and appeared in marketing for Universal theme parks and Milk.

We sat down with Siwa, and her dog BowBow, in her hotel room in New York City ahead of the Ad Council Public Service Award Dinner earlier this month (Siwa worked with the council for its bullying prevention campaign). Playing with her teacup pup (who has also a line of products) and looking like a typical 14-year-old in a sweatshirt over a YouTube T-shirt—and no bow in her hair—we discussed bullying, her online fame and the future of the JoJo brand. Our conversation has been edited.

How did the bow craze start?

I've been wearing bows for my whole, entire life—since I was in preschool and obviously now and above and beyond. But the story on how they really became what they are today, the JoJo bows, Claire's took a big chance on me. My manager literally just called Claire's and was like, "I need to speak with corporate," and wiggled her way in. Then she got hold of this girl and asked her the next time she was in California to let us know and she was like, "Well, actually, I am flying out tomorrow." But then she said her schedule is full so maybe we could do it the next time. And my manager was like, "Actually, we'll just meet you in the lobby of your hotel, where are you staying?"

At the time I was like, "Oh god, what is happening?" But I was like, whatever, I'm just going to go with it. So we went with it, we met her in the hotel lobby and you know, they were going to do a bow test in 100 stores, then they moved it up to 300 stores, then it moved up to 1,000 stores, and then it moved up to all their stores which is like 3,500. So they took a really, really big chance on me. And I am so grateful for them because without them it wouldn't be what it is today.

There's meaning behind the bow. Where did that originate?

I have something called "Siwanators," and if you're a Siwanator you're strong, you're powerful, you stand up to the bullies. If you're a Siwanator, you're nice. And the way you can tell if someone is a Siwanator is if they have a JoJo bow in. So if you're sitting at recess at school and someone is not being nice to you but you see another kid who has a JoJo bow in, you can go hang out with them and they'll be nice to you because they're a Siwanator.

Have you experienced bullying?

I have experienced a lot of online bullying because I am homeschooled.

That's where a lot of kids experience bullying now.

That's what makes it so terrible. I say in "Boomerang" [her single; Siwa is also a singer], "hide behind the screen, you're so mean." It's literally about someone hiding behind their screen or behind their phone saying, "You're fat, you're rude, you're ugly, you're a brat, you're annoying, I hate you." And it's just terrible. I have to go through it every day. And I found what works for me is I can just delete and block, but I want to inspire other people and let them know it's OK and you don't need to worry about those comments because for every one comment that's rude there are 100 that are nice.

The JoJo brand goes beyond bows now. You have products in Walmart and other retail stores.

7-Eleven is getting bows.

How involved are you in the process of making JoJo-branded products?

Pretty much how it works is there's a style guide with pictures of me, colors, fonts for wording, different prints, different styles, different patterns—there's everything you can imagine that can go on a shirt. And so what happens is, I did a big photo shoot and so did Bow [her dog] and those are the approved pictures that can go on stuff. So then I say, "Yeah, I love that," and then they say, "OK, we're going to put this on a bike, this on a T-shirt, this on a napkin. And then I see it online and am like, 'Ohh, new things." I love it.

Are there products you hope to see on shelves?

One of my personal favorites is JoJo underwear. Just to think there are girls walking around...it's weird but funny. You have Elsa and Anna, you have SpongeBob you have Ninja Turtles, and then you have JoJo. It's so funny. There's a bike out in Australia and a helmet that's unbelievable. The shoes that are coming out are really cool. It's crazy how many JoJo things there are.

What do you think when you see your face on this stuff?

It is crazy, crazy, crazy that this is my life. I know this is what I've always wanted—I wanted to be Hannah Montana—but it's crazy that this is my reality. I am a kid from Nebraska, I followed my dreams and these are my dreams I'm living now. It's just really cool I believed in myself, my family, my friends they all believed in me and now look at what I'm doing.

A lot of that started with YouTube. How did you build your following?

It's kind of funny how the whole YouTube thing started. When I was 10—but even before that, I posted all my duck tape stuff I made [like bows], my dance stretch tutorial when I was 5 years old—but I was about 10 and my publicist was like, "I'm going to make you a YouTube channel" and I was like, "OK." She gave me a GoPro and said, "This is what you're going to do, you're going to send me stuff and I'm going to edit it." And I was like, "I don't know, OK, cool." We vlogged a little bit and I just kind of did it. And then one of my friends was telling me all about YouTube and how amazing it is and I was like, "Wow, that's something I seriously want to get into." So then I went home, I learned about it, I mean I have been watching it my whole life.

Do you watch a lot of YouTube? Do your friends?

One-hundred percent. All the time. It's the new thing. It is fun. It's fast. It's energetic. So yeah. Definitely. But then I just did it as I felt like it. I never said, "I have to do this." YouTube is 100 percent a job. but it's a fun job. And if I didn't like it I would not do it. It was definitely really organic going into it. It's not like I have a set script and I have to do this every single day.

Are there other platforms you're regularly using?

The two things I use the most are YouTube and Instagram. Then of course Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, Music.ly. Back to the YouTube thing, I used to post one time a week, now I literally post nine. One day I can come up with 50 content ideas and I'm like, "Boom, I want to do this idea, this idea, this idea." I have a YouTube notebook and I write them all down. Then other days I'm like, "I have no clue what I want to do today." I rarely have days like that. But it's so fun.

What do you watch on a regular basis? What do you watch on YouTube?

I went through a phase where I watched a bunch of YouTubers who do kind of the same stuff I do, who are in the same demographic. I watched the videos a lot, and I still do, I still love them, they are all my friends, it's just like a family, but I felt sometimes like I would be copying them almost. And I want them to have their thing and I want to have my thing so I had to step away and watch something else. So now what I watch on YouTube is this YouTube page called "What's Up Moms." I don't know why I watch it. It's a YouTube channel for moms who have kids who want fun DIY stuff, but there are some brilliant things on there.

Do you watch TV?

I do. I have a very slight obsession with "Grey's Anatomy."

Did you binge on Netflix? Are you fully caught up?

Fully caught up. I probably watched every episode three times. "Grey's Anatomy" is by far, by a landslide, my favorite show.

What comes next for you?

It's hard to think what comes next because I try to do whatever feels right in the moment. I don't really plan things. I can't tell you what I'm going to do tomorrow, I can't tell you what I am doing in a year, but I can tell you what I am doing in 10 years.

What's that?

So, in 10 years I will be 24 years old. I will probably be going on my first big, big tour. I would have just released a huge album, in my brain it would have been wildly successful.

So music is the goal?

Music, definitely. As of now.

Where do you see your brand going?

I've thought about my future and everything that's to come, but a lot of people are like, "What does high school JoJo look like? What does senior JoJo look like?" And you know, it's just going to kind of evolve as it happens. If one day I wake up and I go, "I want to wear my hair down today," I will.

At what point do you stop wearing the bow in your public appearances?

I think the bow will stick with me through my entire life. I don't think I'll always wear a side ponytail and bow, but I do think I'll l eventually buy a ring and it will have a diamond bow on it and it will always forever and forever be in my life, because it is me, it's who I am, it's what I love. It's not like I have a contract that says I have to wear a bow every day. That's not a thing. It's just going to evolve as I evolve. If one day I wake up and go, "I just don't want to wear the bow today," I just wouldn't wear it. I just have to do what's right for me and make the transition right now.

Are there brands you gravitate toward?

Anything with rainbow sequins. If it has rainbow sequins on it I like it. That's not necessarily a brand…The places I shop are Target, Justice, Walmart, Claire's, JCPenney, Forever 21, H&M. I online shop. I don't like to go shopping.

Do you have a YouTube shirt on?

I do have a YouTube shirt on. Always. Forever. YouTube is my No. 1, my love.

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